Saturday, 24 May 2014

The erosion of trust and the Scottish Independence referendum

Looking back on the first 14 years of the new millennium (or 13, depending how you measure the starts of millennia) it seems clear that one of the predominant trends of this time has been the extraordinary erosion of public trust in institutions and prominent individuals, from the Press to the Church and everything in between. The list is seemingly endless: Government intelligence agencies, the banks, politicians in general and the Liberal Democrats in particular, Radio 1 DJs, children's entertainers (Rolf Harris, for God's sake!), the police, the staff of old people's homes, multinational corporations from Amazon to Starbucks... I could go on. Indeed the erosion of trust seems to have become government policy. There have been concerted (and unfortunately often successful) efforts to undermine our trust in the NHS, the State education system and the British impulse towards supporting the underdog (from penniless immigrant to destitute benefits claimant).

Of course most of this erosion of trust has been brought about by the exposure of iniquitous and self-serving behaviour on the part of individuals and organisations that it is vitally important has been brought to light. The Public Interest Disclosure Act of 1998 introduced powerful protections for whistle-blowers and it is in part this that has led to the exposure of wrongdoing that had remained hidden often for decades. The time was that power and privilege bought secrecy and the opportunity to exploit others with impunity and it is of course wonderful that those days are gone. We are cannier now, empowered by social media technology and the availability of information. To quote the Who, we won't get fooled again.

Yet this erosion of trust has not been without its downsides, and perhaps the clearest illustration of this is what has been happening in UK politics of recent years. The whole MPs' expenses debacle, combined with the revelation of the poisonously cosy relationship between political leaders and the Murdoch press and the Liberal Democrats' abandonment of their manifesto pledges have led to a catastrophic destruction of public trust. In a poll in 2013 93% of those surveyed said they would not trust politicians to tell the truth when in a tight corner. What this has led to in England has been a quite extraordinary rise in support for UKIP- a party without MPs or indeed discernible policies. Why? Principally it seems because they are not in any meaningful sense politicians. It is not that anyone trusts Nigel Farage, it is simply that he, like the rest of the UK population, doesn't trust politicians either.

This way of course madness lies. You do not trust politicians, so you choose people about whom you know virtually nothing (beyond their uninformed, narrow-minded and xenophobic attitudes to foreigners) to become... politicians. The same applies to that other public-school educated "anti-establishment" (I hate ironic quotation marks, but what option do I have?) figure, Boris Johnson. Londoners continue to elect him because he shares their cynical, world-weary distrust in anyone and anything. Plus he's good for a laugh.

On a wider level the habit of distrust has a corrosive effect on any notion of State-provide services, so playing into the hands of the neo-cons who want to tear such institutions down. We no longer automatically assume that hospitals, schools or social services departments will be acting in our interests. And should you think that this attitude affects only the neo-Thatcherites amongst us, consider even those who work in such institutions. Most, it seems, no longer trust their own higher tiers of management, or assume that the whole institution is broadly working together in their common pursuit of a worthwhile goal.

Bizarrely the bankers, whose betrayal of trust was the most flagrant and expensive of anyone's, seem to have been the least affected by the erosion of that trust. Maybe self-serving cynicism has for so long been engrained in them that they barely noticed that no one trusted them any more. Presumably they always knew that no one should, and were just astonished that up until the great financial crisis of 2007-8 people seemed to. Nowadays they function just as they always did, paid just as much as they ever were and gambling just as recklessly, only this time with money given directly to them by the taxpayer under quantitative easing.

So does any of this matter? Surely it is better that at least now we know when we have been shafted, unlike the forelock-tugging proles who preceded us. Well, yes and no. The problem is that to a certain extent any social organisation is based on trust: an act of faith in the fundamental decency of other human beings on whom we can rely to act broadly in the public interest. Without such trust there really is (to echo Thatcher) no such thing as society. A complete erosion of trust can have only one destination: the assault-rifle-wielding sociopaths of the American right wing. Which surely most sentient and rational humans would regard as a bad thing.

So how do we square the circle? When recent revelations have taught us that people in public life up and down the country (and the world) have been venal, corrupt, self-serving and deceitful how do we retain trust in institutions, even where we believe them to be essential to the civilised functioning of our world?

Partly I think the answer goes back (for me) to a lesson I learned in many years as a headteacher: adults and children are fundamentally exactly the same, it is just that children are generally more transparent in their childishness. Thus what we know about children's behaviour can be applied wholesale to adults too. And one thing that I have learned about children is that if you distrust them they will behave in such a way as not to be worthy of trust. The converse may not always be the case (children are capable of lying even to people who offer them complete trust) but distrust inevitably gives rise to lack of trustworthiness. If a child knows they will not be believed whatever they say then they will always lie. If you give them a genuine chance of telling the truth and being believed then they may possibly live up to that belief. If you subject children to a behaviour-management regime based on distrust then they will find sneaky ways to misbehave and not get caught. Give them trust and a positive sense of responsibility and they just might live up to it.

So what possible lessons can be learned from this? Am I suggesting that so long as we trust David Cameron and [shudder] Michael Gove they will, in the end, do the right thing? Ummmm, No.

Where this is relevant though is in the question of the Scottish Independence vote. Although still barely rippling the political waters south of the border the upcoming referendum is clearly building towards a political reawakening in what was North Britain of which a vote for independence may not be the most profound outcome. Poorly informed as I am it does seem to me that what seems to be gathering momentum is a sense that just maybe Scotland can make a leap of faith away from the narrow-minded, UKIP-centric, anti-cosmopolitan politics of England towards a more egalitarian, demilitarised, pro-European vision of an independent nation state.

The thing is, if the Scottish people are to vote for independence then that will require a great deal of the quality which this millenium seems so profoundly to have eroded: trust. They need to trust that Alec Salmond is not just a politically astute media-junkie. They need to trust that all the bluster about not letting Scotland keep the pound was just bluster. And most of all they need to trust in each other, that independence will take them not towards jingoistic introspection but away from it, and towards a fairer and more enlightened society.

And I say all power to their elbows, though I will be profoundly sorry to see them go. In fact if it wasn't for the weather I'd be contemplating a move right now.

And the lack of availability of ethnically diverse food shops.

And the sheer bloody DISTANCE from anywhere.

And did I mention the weather?

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